Arsenal starting XI youngest in Premier League; Oleksandr Zinchenko, Gabriel Jesus and William Saliba debuts analysed; Jesus compared with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang; how expected goals reveal Arsenal are capable of grinding out results on the road
Tuesday 9 August 2022 14:47, UK
Starting on a Friday night, travelling across London to face a boisterous home crowd? Arsenal had been there before.
The Gunners lost 2-0 at Brentford on the opening Friday in August last year and would end the month bottom of the league for the first time since 1992.
This year, Arsenal were dealt a sticky-looking opener at Crystal Palace but returned to north London with three points - so what did we learn?
Arsenal's starting XI at Selhurst Park contained just three players who started at Brentford a year earlier: Ben White, Granit Xhaka, and Gabriel Martinelli. Big-money signings Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus made debuts, as did William Saliba.
Arsenal were the youngest team in the Premier League last season. They started this season in a similar vein, naming a starting XI with an average age of 24 years and 219 days. Jesus and Zinchenko, both 25 years old, were comparative veterans. Their influence was clear from the start.
Jesus did not score on Friday - he had only one shot all game. But last season he provided eight Premier League assists for Manchester City - joint-most for City, along with Kevin De Bruyne - and his all-round game was on show at Selhurst Park.
Jesus played a key part in Arsenal's first real opening. He outmuscled Jeff Schlupp, nutmegged Palace debutant Cheick Doucoure, and beat centre-back Joachim Andersen, before his shot deflected into Martinelli's path. Strength, skill and a willingness to take on opponents and be Arsenal's focal point.
It is a sample size of just one game, but Jesus' numbers on Friday eclipsed last season's contributions per 90 minutes from senior forwards Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
To put those numbers into more context, the last Arsenal forward to win more duels in an away game was Alexis Sanchez in December 2017, and last season only one Arsenal player surpassed six successful dribbles in any game (Martinelli at Tottenham in May).
Zinchenko started at left-back ahead of Kieran Tierney, who was a key player last season - but his fitness has been a long-standing concern. He missed Arsenal's final 10 games last season - the Gunners lost five of those games and did not keep a clean sheet in any of them.
Arsenal needed cover at left-back, but that is not all Zinchenko offers - his tactical flexibility gives Mikel Arteta something different.
Zinchenko tends to play in midfield for his country, and during his time at City he would often position himself in a more central position during build-up play. On his Arsenal debut, the Ukraine international alternated between providing width, especially high up the pitch, and coming inside.
When he came inside, Zinchenko formed a triangle with Martinelli and Xhaka, overloading Palace's right flank and enabling Arsenal to dominate the early exchanges. In the opening 20 minutes, before Zinchenko assisted Martinelli's opener, Arsenal enjoyed 67 per cent of possession.
Zinchenko's heat map from the Palace game shows how centrally he plays, compared with a more conventional full-back like Tierney.
Arsenal dominated the first 20 minutes against Palace, and when Martinelli's goal came it was fully deserved. But it is rare to get things your own way for 90 minutes away from home in the Premier League, and Aaron Ramsdale made huge saves from Odsonne Eduoard and Ebere Eze as Palace applied the pressure.
Arsenal saw the game out, though, and that is sure to please boss Mikel Arteta, just as much as the performance in those opening 20 minutes.
It is bordering on cliche to suggest that Arsenal have a soft centre, but they did suffer from inconsistency last season. They lost 13 league games, including nine of 19 games on the road - the Gunners have only suffered more away defeats in two Premier League seasons.
Arsenal need to grind out points in difficult away games if they are to finish in the top four this season.
Palace ended Friday's game with the better expected goals tally, racking up an xG of 1.21, compared with Arsenal's 1.00.
Last season, Arsenal lost nine of 12 games when they had a lower xG than their opponents, averaging 0.58 points per game. This was a noticeably worse record than the other top-six teams. The best, most consistent teams, pick up points when they are under pressure.
Arsenal won 72 duels against Palace on Friday, their most in any Premier League away game since a 1-1 draw at Manchester United in November 2016. They also made 29 tackles, their most in the Premier League in front of an away crowd for over seven years.
Of course, it is still early days. Arsenal made real progress last season, but still had the frustrating habit of taking two steps forward and then one step back. More tests lie ahead over the coming months, but, if you were in that sunny away end at Selhurst Park on Friday night, you will feel a lot more confident than you did a year ago at Brentford.